Yosef Zohar
Yosef Zohar
The Institute for Safety in the Criminal Justice System

Safety in the Criminal Justice System

How is it possible that a person was convicted on the basis of evidence that was “widely condemned” more than 50 years ago?

In the article “I Write About the Law. But Could I Really Help Free a Prisoner?NYT June 30, 2021, Emily Bazelon describes the case of Yutico Briley conviction in 2012 for an armed robbery he did not commit and for which he was sentenced to 60 years in prison, and the saga of the fight for his acquittal and release that ended successfully, about nine years after his conviction.

Due to the fact that in the past we were wrong to think that there are almost no false convictions, no safety mechanisms have been developed in the criminal justice system. Because we do not have “litmus paper” through which to check whether a conviction is correct, there is no feedback through which we can check if the system is improving. Therefore, one should strive to learn from other fields safety methods.

In other areas of our lives, such as aviation, transportation and engineering, where accidents are overt, sophisticated safety practices have been developed. Modern safety methods investigate not only accidents, but also incidents, near-accident situations. In order to properly investigate every incident, there is a duty to report – not only on accidents (which in other areas you can see with your own eyes) but also on incidents.

In criminal justice system, although much can be learned from examining safety incidents, they are rarely studied or addressed, and even the most serious accidents (convictions of innocents) are not properly investigated, and there is no duty at all to report incidents.

Safety in the Criminal justice system means the public’s freedom from accidental avoidable injury from crime or from the criminal process. An incident, is an event that if not monitored or corrected could have led to injury to a person as a result of the intervention of the criminal justice system or failure to intervene. Hence a false conviction is a serious administrative failure of the criminal justice system to institute or ensure safe activity, or the use of an incorrect process to achieve a result.

A safety event signals that there is a weakness in the system or process. Similar to the mistakes that led to Briley’s wrongful conviction – as described by Bazelon in detail in the article – a safety event is usually the result of a sequence of mistakes, and if properly examined may provide important keys to strengthening the system and preventing recurrence.

Investigation of safety events is a process designed to promote a culture of continuous improvement, and is different from other critical incident investigation processes such as commissions of inquiry, in that it is a procedure not intended to impose liability or guilt.

Based on the vision and leadership of Prof. Boaz Sangero, a global expert in the prevention of false convictions, and in the spirit of the above mentioned insights, the Institute for Safety in the Criminal Justice System was founded in 2020 in the Western Galilee Academic College.

In the first phase, a safety team that includes representatives of most of the officials participating in the criminal proceedings; from the State Attorney’s Office, the Public Defender’s Office, the Bar Association, the police; experts in forensic science, from the academia and more, was built and since meets regularly about once a month.

The team discusses “accident” or “near-accident” safety incidents and conducts investigations openly, anonymously and without liability, in an attempt to analyze the causes of failure and in an attempt to develop safety practices that will prevent subsequent failures.

The source of inspiration for the establishment of the safety team, serves a Sentinel Event Review model that was initiated by James Doyle – a veteran litigator and the leading legal authority on eyewitness testimony – and began operating in 2014 under the federal supports of the US Department of Justice in the states: Milwaukee, Philadelphia and Baltimore and has since been duplicated in other states across the US.

Our independence and existence as a free democracy encompasses the state’s commitment to the freedom of the individual from false accusation and conviction. In order to carry out real reform and significantly improve the criminal justice system, and prevent failures such as those mentioned in the article, a State-sponsored National Safety Institute should be established, with authority to enforce through legislation and regulation, among other things, safety practices, such as procedures for conducting police-lineup, establishing safety procedures for examining scientific evidence, demanding strong corroboration for confession, etc.

About the Author
Researcher and Lecturer, Department of Criminology at Western Galilee College. Managing director, The Institute for Safety in the Criminal Justice System. Research Fellow, Judicial Conflict Resolution (JCR) project at the Faculty of Law, Bar Ilan University.